Saturday, July 7, 2007

Lewis the First

Are the times really a changing? With the spotlight firmly affixed upon young British phenom Louise Jaguar Hamilton this weekend at Silverstone. It’s quite hard to believe that the same year that Hamilton was born, Bernie Ecclestone was giving another Black race car driver a very brief tryout behind the wheel of one of his Brabham F1 Team’s chassis.

Yet I recall piling on the bash wagon towards an aspiring Black race car driver of a previous generation… You see I used to call him Willy T. “Mc Ribbs.”

William Theodore Ribbs Jr. was a man of many firsts in motor racing, as he was the first African American to contest several different major league series.

In what seemed to be an omen of things to come. I witnessed my very first person being shocked with defibulator paddles while walking towards my grandstand seat. Naively I couldn’t figure out why they were so concerned about moving the metal crowd control barrier out of the way. And the paramedic’s bus pulled away slowly without any lights or sirens on.

A day later while seated at the first turn hairpin chicane “kitty corner” to what could arguably be deemed Ribbs worst moment of racing, which was clearly NOT his fault! I was on hand that terrible moment a corner worker darted out in front of Ribbs while attending to another stricken competitor at the inaugural Molson Indy CART race. And unfortunately the corner worker was killed on the Vancouver, BC temporary street circuit in 1990.

While Ribbs would become the first and to date only African American to qualify and compete in the Indy 500, he still bore the brunt of my jokes alongside the back marker affectionately known as “King Hiro.” Or the rolling chicane Hiro Matsushita. As both of these competitors along with Lyn St James continuously languished at the back end of the CART grids…

Yet I suppose that time has a funny way of changing your perspective. As I know I never gave Willy T. his just due, for whatever reason… As Robin Miller notes, Ribbs was apparently too brash for American race fans, teams and sponsors alike to give the overly talented African American his true shot in racing.

Although Ribbs had the backing of none other than Bill Cosby, he was never afforded a chance to shine in top notch front line equipment. Instead struggling at the back of the grid in the under funded Raynor Cosby. Which I can no longer recall if that was a Derrick Walker or Dick Simon entity? But I’m fairly certain it was part of the always struggling Walker operation, since Matsushita, St James and Scott Brayton were all Dick Simon Racing teammates.

Surprisingly, I was unaware of Ribbs competing and winning in Trans Am for Roush Racing. And even more intriguing was Ribbs forays into RASSCAR. In his first outing after missing two practices, he was replaced by another knucklehead. None other than ‘ole Ironhead himself, better known as the late Dale Earnhart Sr.

Yet sadly nobody wanted to take the brash Mr. Ribbs seriously as a race car driver, albeit a few visionaries such as Jim Trueman and Dan Gurney. As Willy T just simply faded from the Open Wheel fraternity in 1994.

Today Willy T is a top level skeet shooter while his new found protege Lewis Hamilton is leading the World Championship…

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